Blog 🍎 School 16th August 2018

Are UK Universities Friendly or Unfriendly Towards International Baccalaureate Students?

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

When it comes to UK university applications, the A-level is still the benchmark against which most universities set their entry requirements for courses.

If you’re a UK student making decisions about which university is right for you, then A-level results are everything. Similarly, for the majority of teachers and career advisers in the UK, the A-level curriculum ultimately shapes any and all guidance you give your students to prepare them for university, and the world of work beyond. 

But A-levels aren’t the whole story. BridgeU currently has partnerships with schools in over 140 countries offering the International Baccalaureate (IB). BridgeU’s international outlook means we are uniquely placed to help students and teachers navigate a higher education market that will only become more populated and more global in the next twenty years.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that A-levels are the dominant qualification when preparing UK students for the university admissions process. As such, A-levels continue to dominate discussion and debate surrounding the preparedness of students for the world of work (especially UK students).

So where does this leave IB students? Does being an IB student work against you if you’re looking to apply for a leading UK university? How do entry criteria differ? Do they differ at all?

Our latest infographic highlights some surprising disparities between the IB and A-level entry requirements for universities across the United Kingdom. If you’re an IB teacher or IB school leader, the findings will definitely interest you. 

IB vs A-level requirements: is it just pointless point scoring? 

Amongst Russell Group universities displayed above, (UCL and The University of Birmingham), average minimum entry requirements for A-level students are AAB. Meanwhile,  there is a difference of four points for IB students.

There is a similar disparity in the average minimum admissions for Loughborough University and Leicester University, both of which sit outside the Russell Group of universities.

Again, if your A-level student is considering their options for a course at one of these two universities, their required grades are exactly the same. However, IB students find their choices more complicated, as there is a three-point difference between Leicester and Loughborough.


For IB students hoping to study PPE, there is a disparity between the two courses offered by The University of Leeds & University of Oxford respectively. While A-level students are asked to achieve A-grades in all their subjects, IB students are asked to achieve a higher grade average for Oxford than they are for Leeds. 

It’s worth mentioning at this point that entry requirements for Oxford are generally more rigorous. Nevertheless, if you’re a teacher or careers advisor at an IB school and you have a student with aspirations to apply for PPE, the disparity between IB grades entry requirements across universities could be an extra psychological hurdle in the decision-making process. 

Chemical Engineering

Now take a look at the entry requirements for Chemical Engineering. Whilst Birmingham asks for four A grades from its A-Level applicants, Manchester University only asks for three A grades. Meanwhile, IB students are asked to achieve broadly similar grade point averages when applying for either of the two Chemical Engineering degrees. Again, what are IB teachers, career advisers and students supposed to make of this when planning a university application? 

Bonus resource

For more information on UK entry requirements for A-level and IB students, download your free Ultimate Guide to Studying in the UK, complete with free lesson plans to help your students plan their UK university applications. Click here to download.

Are IB students applying to UK universities at a disadvantage? 

Based on our admissions data, it would appear that IB students applying for degree courses at UK universities are faced with a more complex, and at times opaque, admissions process than their A-level counterparts.

So whilst A-level students are asked to work towards the same grades for similar degree courses, IB students’ required grades are seemingly much more erratic, depending on which university (and even course or program) they are applying to.

The fact that multiple UK universities interpret the IB curriculum differently makes the jobs of university advisers and IB coordinators that bit more difficult. But, as we said at the beginning of the blog post –  that’s not the whole story. BridgeU’s work with IB schools means that we have a unique insight into the IB and the advantages it can offer students applying to university, whether it be in the UK or worldwide.

It’s important not to draw too many broad equivalencies between IB and A-level applications; indeed there is no universally agreed scale for mapping standards across A-level and IB curricula.

There is evidence to suggest that the advantages of the IB for students applying to UK universities significantly outweigh the benefits of A-levels.

A-level versus IB: building a more meaningful comparison 

When it comes to trends in university applications, BridgeU is gathering more data all the time. Whilst it is true that there is still a lot of variation in how UK universities interpret the IB, it’s also important to remember that any such variation can work in IB students’ favour. For example:

  • Data gathered by BridgeU suggests that there is a general trend towards UK universities being tougher with their admission requirements for IB humanities students, versus their A-level counterparts studying for the same subject group.
  • However, BridgeU’s own research has also found that, when it comes to IB applicants looking to study STEM subjects at UK universities, entry requirements are somewhat more lenient.
  • In addition, IB applicants for Humanities courses in the UK are nearly 50% higher than IB applications to STEM degrees. If STEM degree courses are that more lenient in their entry criteria, it’s possible there is room for growth in the number of IB students applying for courses in STEM subjects at universities in the United Kingdom.

In short, UK universities may welcome more applications from aspiring IB STEM applicants

As we continue to gather more data, BridgeU will be able to offer valuable insights to both IB schools and higher education institutions. IB students and teachers alike can rely more on tangible data to inform their university and career guidance strategy.

Likewise, universities will gain insight into how they can adapt their admissions processes to ensure they are best positioned to attract high-quality and diverse applicants from across the globe. 

For more information on entry requirements for the UK university system, download your free Ultimate Guide to Studying At University in the UK, complete with 7 free lesson plans designed to help your students choose the right destination for them.

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